Last September, Scottish voters narrowly rejected a referendum on whether Scotland should break away from the United Kingdom and become an independent country. A “yes” vote on independence likely would have hurt many British companies by creating uncertainty about what currency Scotland would use and how a newly independent Scottish economy would be managed and regulated. But the rejection of the referendum didn’t put the independence issue to rest. Support for the SNP, which strongly backs Scottish independence, has surged over the past 7 months. Success by the SNP in the upcoming election would increase the chances of another independence referendum.
A promise that Prime Minister David Cameron made could have an even more widespread effect on investors’ portfolios. In 2013 he vowed to give British voters a referendum on whether the UK should remain part of the European Union. Such a referendum won’t necessarily occur: the Conservative party would have to win the upcoming election and be able to form a government with only coalition partners who also agree to the referendum. But if it does occur, the political and economic uncertainty created by such a referendum could adversely affect not only British companies, but also companies around the world that operate in the UK or trade with the UK.
Many of these effects from the election may not occur for a while. Cameron’s proposed referendum, for example, wouldn’t take place until 2017, and much could change in British politics before then. But the general effect of the election for investors could be to increase the impact of political risk on financial markets. So far this year, despite conflicts in the Middle East and drama surrounding the Greek government’s finances, markets have largely shrugged off political risks. The UK election has the potential to change that.